Why Montreal eating places should not reopen their eating rooms now

Over the past month, parts of Ontario, Quebec, and elsewhere in the country have revitalized indoor dining. Montreal’s indoor pools, ice rinks, and movie theaters have all made their big comeback in time for the spring break, but eating out is still a no-go. Almost a year since the province first declared a state of emergency, many in the city’s dining community have been eager to repeat their roles as meeting room owners and workers, but some believe we are simply not ready.

“For example, if the provincial government opened dining rooms in a week’s time and I was asked if we would attend, the answer would be a resounding no,” said Nicole Turcotte, co-owner of Mile-Ex’s acclaimed Southern Restaurant Dinette Triple Crown. “Science has proven itself in cities around the world, so we don’t have to test it ourselves and put our employees in an unsafe environment that would not only be dangerous to them, but which could have massive repercussions if we just shut the line down again have to.”

Routine hand-wringing by restaurant owners calling on Premier François Legault to press for the reopening of their businesses, and a petition pleading for more than 11,000 signatures from the Quebec Restaurant Associations (ARQ) suggests that Turcotte may be in the Minority is.

It’s no surprise that many food and beverage companies in Montreal are fed up. The provincial government keeps lagging behind others when it comes to legislative changes to provide restaurants and bars with potentially business-saving relief by capping commission fees from delivery giants and allowing take-away cocktails. His decision-making is viewed by some as opaque, and his help is scant and difficult to access.

Turcotte understands despair; she also feels it very much. But instead of steering it into a hasty reopening of dining rooms, she believes the industry could do better if they banded together to pressure for more solid financial support – not loans that just make up for the pain to reach the province. (Although the provincial support has been widely criticized by business owners, many of the Montreal dining community seem to appreciate the federal rent and wage subsidy programs.)

“I fully understand the people who are pushing to reopen. People see their hard work and dreams vanish into financial ruin. Me too, ”says Turcotte. “But I think we’re getting it wrong. Instead of pushing for the reopening and potentially putting our employees at risk, let us push the government to provide meaningful help.

John Winter Russell, the head chef at Candide Restaurant in Little Burgundy, agrees that efforts to advance indoor dining for the foreseeable future are misplaced and potentially life-threatening. Like Turcotte, he expresses discomfort at the thought of doing this before reliable contact tracing and widespread virus vaccination are achieved – and the case numbers are low, single-digit low.

With 737 more people testing positive on Sunday and 613 on Monday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Quebec is falling, but they’re still not far from where they were when Legault was almost six ago Months suggested closing the food indoors. At the last count, the death toll in the province was 10,399.

“I don’t want to pretend I’m an immunologist or a vaccine expert or anything. So what I can say is that the likelihood of someone dying working in a restaurant was near zero before the pandemic. But right now the odds are still very close to zero with mitigated risks, but that doesn’t mean they’re zero or even so close to zero that it’s negligible, “says Winter Russell. “Nor does it mean that we can be sure that we are not participating in the spread of the virus ourselves.”

It cannot be denied that over the past year restaurants have done their best to put in place security measures that drastically limit the likelihood of virus-laden droplets spreading in their rooms. They have borne the cost of plexiglass and personal protective equipment, and spent hundreds of hours deciphering and executing government contracts while the future of their business was at stake. But as long as community transmission stays in the high triple digits, the introduction of vaccines in the early stages, and wearing of masks continuously while eating are utterly impossible, they cannot scientifically ensure complete safety for their customers or workers.

“I don’t want anyone here to worry if, for example, they take off their mask to try something in the kitchen that they could contaminate someone,” says Winter Russell. “And the reality is that we cannot physically do our jobs while wearing our masks.” He points to statistics published in a recent study published by the University of California that shows chefs, chefs, bartenders, and bakers are the occupations at the highest risk of COVID-19-related deaths in the state.

If Legault decides to reopen the dining rooms shortly – which seems unlikely given his insistence on banning popcorn sales in cinemas – says Winter Russell, the decision would have to come down to a vote by the restaurant’s entire team. “It would need unanimous approval,” he says.

This type of open forum makes sense for Candide, where all employees receive an annual salary, access to health insurance, and paid vacation – meaning workers won’t put themselves financially at risk if they oppose reopening. But with the overwhelming majority of the city’s restaurants lacking such protection, the willingness to return to the front lines could otherwise be guided by the precarious nature of their jobs, fear that they will not be able to afford their rent and pay their bills or otherwise feed their families when they don’t. (That’s the same reason a pre-pandemic worker might choose to work with the flu, and why organizations like the Canadian Workers Right Coalition are fighting for government-mandated sick days.)

Larrys / Supplied

Speaking to Keaton Ritchie, general manager and wine director of sister restaurants Larrys and Lawrence of Mile End, in early February, the day after the announcement that parts of Quebec would be downgraded to orange alert to ease restrictions and limited reopening of dining rooms, he said, customers in Montreal were also starting to bring up the issue of an imminent reopening. It had been a topic of conversation that had been forgotten for months. “It made everything feel real again, except that, unlike in summer, there are now new, more transferable variants,” says Ritchie.

Easier and faster transferable variants have become a major concern in Montreal, where they now make up about 10 percent of the city’s COVID-19 tests. Combine that with the lack of real plans to vaccinate restaurant workers anytime soon, Ritchie says he feels his cohort is being overlooked.

“Much of the reopening talk is focused on the guests, not the workers who spend eight or ten hours a day in these rooms,” says Ritchie. “Even if I take all measures, I still interact with dozens of people in a day just doing takeout while the government tells everyone to stay home and avoid all contact. It definitely feels like we are only important to the people who actually make these policies, as long as it serves their purposes. We are important when they want to offer take-away, but not when it is time to talk about our protection. “

Although vaccine adoption in the province is finally picking up pace – approximately 700,000 doses are due to arrive over the next month, 4.5 percent of the population are now vaccinated and Montreal residents 70 and older are now eligible to make an appointment – many of the people in The province has been labeled “essential” since the pandemic began do not know when to get theirs. Although not explicitly stated, it appears that restaurant workers would fall one category above the tenth and final priority group: “the rest of the adult population”. Last week, a report from CTV News suggested that the ninth category could soon be further broken down by teachers, grocery cashiers, and other workers who were part of ongoing essential services during the first and second waves, but restaurant workers were not named.

Unless the virus mutates spontaneously to be less fatal, or the numbers drop to single-digit numbers and proper contact tracing is put in place, Turcotte says there is “just no way” to get Dinette Triple Crown without a vaccine for theirs Re-open staff. In fact, she says, it almost feels “absurd” to look at this in the context of previous labor rights victories in the province.

“I think back to when I was working in a bar in Montreal and the indoor smoking law was passed. It was won from a workers’ rights perspective because it was seen as an unsafe environment for people to be eight or ten hours a day, ”says Turcotte. The argument back then, in 2006, was that 20 years later, workers could get cancer from secondhand smoke they suffered while working, she explains. “Right now, however, some people seem to be fine that their workers are in the presence of an airborne virus that has resulted in instant death in a large portion of the population. When I think about it, it’s clear that we’ve somehow lost perspective. ”

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